Are you cold? Sitting shivering under a blanket as you work? I hope not. But if you are in a school there’s a good chance you are freezing, and it’s not helping an already a bleak situation.
Teachers and pupils are perishing in the mid-November air as classroom windows are now meant to be open for ventilation, to reduce the threat of aerosol Covid transmission. In a Teacher Tapp survey, 64% of teachers who responded said they were required to keep windows open at all times. School heating systems already tend to be feeble; against open windows, they are useless.
In the NHS, a friend described how doctors and nurses were dealing with the Covid second wave. “Hospital spaces? Fine. Staff … we haven’t got any more than in March, and they’re exhausted.”
Schools have the same problem. Yes, teachers are better prepared now. There are masks, and taped-off “do not cross” boundaries. There are remote learning packs for self-isolating students. Supply teachers are filling absences as staff await test results. Heads have found ways to calm anxious parents – those worried about safety and the ones who think masks are a civil liberties issue.
But everyone is exhausted. Schools stayed open from February to August for vulnerable children without any break. The summer, a time of supposed rest, brought the energy-sucking exams debacle, taking morale to new lows.
Add to this the need to change the school system entirely: timetables, lesson changeovers, the use of equipment, the way lunch is handed out. Now there is the legal requirement to teach every child isolating at home.
Tempers are fraying and pressure is rising. One ICT teacher told me her classroom had no heating at all, as the computers had usually heated the room. Now the machines have been removed to prevent Covid transmission through keyboards. “It was 13 degrees at 11am,” she said. “I was nearly in tears by the end of the day.”
“Stick on a jumper and gloves,” is the obvious answer. But let’s not hide from the facts. In London, for example, the average maximum temperature in November is 10C, according to the Met office; the average for the next three months is 7C. The Health and Safety Executive’s guidance for the UK is that, from a safety point of view, workplaces should be no lower than 16° for desk-based work.
Schools are getting too cold, and teachers are bone tired, which will only lead to more absences. Closing schools down is not the answer, so we need to know what is.
Three things could help. First, the Department for Education is going to have to add heating to the long list of costs of “wrapping its arms” around us. Monthly bills in a large school can be up to £1,000, and may need to double to overcome the cold. Schools are also being whacked for the extra costs of PPE, deep cleaning, supply teachers, and home-learning resources. Budgets need shoring up.
Second, schools may need to relax some of their usual rules. I heard of one headteacher who preferred to close the windows rather than allow children to wear coats over their precious uniforms. This is madness. Allow students to wear coats in lessons; let teachers swap suits for hoodies. One teacher told me her sixth-formers were carrying blankets around. It is surely best to be compassionate – and if comfort isn’t enough to prompt some heads, studies show that temperature also affects test performance.
Finally, the government should consider a call by one headteacher for every school holiday this academic year be a minimum of two weeks. It would have meant two weeks for October half-term, and again in February, providing a natural circuit breaker every six weeks. Although there are childcare implications, it is easier to plan for holidays than to randomly have children isolating, and there is evidence such breaks reduce absences. It would give teachers and children the warmth and breathing space they need to make it to the end of the year.